A Full-throated Yodel

Today, Gil Reavill guest-posts as I rest:

THAT SOUND YOU HEAR is the yodels echoing down from the Catskill Mountains. Author, provocateur, deejay, beer mystic and worldwide yodeling authority Bart Plantenga recently appeared for a full-throated presentation and book-signing at Woodstock, NY’s great indie bookstore, The Golden Notebook.

Bart Signing

The event was held on a tourist-flocked sunny Saturday in Woodstock, aka the People’s Republic of Woodstock. The iconic Aquarian village looked to be thriving and was chock full of public art and cheeky signage.

Woodstock sign

The Golden Notebook is one of our all-time favorites as both a bookstore and a book: the venue is named after Doris Lessing’s nervous breakdown of a masterpiece.


A feminist touchstone of the Sixties, Notebook turned a lot of minds around and established the author as a leading light in the literature of the day. Margaret Drabble famously called it “inner space fiction.”


We summered in Woodstock once back in the day at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in the hills above town, staying in one of the tiny cabins. The founder of Byrdcliffe believed in the health benefits of bathing, so he furnished each cabin there with immense eight-foot-long clawfoot tubs. Water was delivered to the faucet by a spring-fed system which ran through hoses that snaked through the woods. Bob Dylan’s old place was just down the road, and we snuck in for a nighttime swim or two in his former grotto. That year the Byrdcliffe Playhouse was doing a stage adaptation of the film Casablanca, and during the show a spotlight rigged on the theater’s roof would strobe the darkness and a claxon would sound as Louis and his friends would search for “the usual suspects.”


With the publication of his second book on the subject, Yodel in Hi-Fi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica, our friend Bart has established himself as an unparalleled resource for musicologists, aficionados and just plain yodel-crazy folks. While he does not indulge in the art himself, Plantenga has exhaustively documented yodeling practices all over the globe.

yodel in hi fi

He rounds up the usual suspects—Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia—but gives fascinating insights into unexpected yodeling traditions among the Pygmy people in Africa and the Hmong in Southeast Asia. Yodeling is a method of changing pitch from ordinary chest register to falsetto, long used as a communication method in mountainous countries where the echo is most pleasing to the ears. Of course it also appears as a vocal effect in many different kinds of music, most notably in country and western but also, as Plantenga shows, in classical, electronica, pop and pretty much every other style on the face of the earth. The great country music pioneer Jimmie Rogers rode to fame on the strength of his “blue yodel.”


Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan yodel entered into the modern pop culture in the middle of the last century, and the practice was played for laughs by comic Carol Burnett, who used to open her television show with a suitably loony example. Plantenga’s reach goes much deeper than these popular examples, unearthing gems such as Bollywood actor Kumar, a yodeling sub-genre of German video porn (!), and South Korean faux-Bavarian yodeling groups. Bart spoke about yodeling as an “outburst of joy,” citing the “total Oktoberfest insanity” of alcohol-fueled burghers who bust out in freestyle tavern yodel throwdowns. “I like anomalies that make people re-assess clichés,” he says, and in Yodel in Hi-Fi, he has unearthed dozens of them.


Filed under Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Writers, Writing

8 responses to “A Full-throated Yodel

  1. There’s something about that that doesn’t sound real.

  2. I would like to hear her probably very small yodel emanating from a corner of the living room.


    Hahaha! Lego’s Pretzel girl? My favorite is still Tarzan’s call… patented!

  4. Andy

    lkcr – I didn’t know that trained singers lose their falsetto. What happened to your break point?

  5. When I was young, I could yodel. Now that I am a trained mezzo soprano and can sing you right through the wall, I can no longer yodel! Yodeling involves moving the voice’s tone above and below the point at which one’s voice breaks into falsetto, also known as a break point. I now have 3 octaves of normal range. I no longer have a falsetto.
    Eh, ya win some, ya lose some. I would rather be able to sing like I now can than be able to yodel. Still, it is a valid art form that I will not disparage.
    Still, standing on the top of a cliff and looking off into the distance, sometimes it WOULD be nice to yodel, just to hear the echo.

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